Prince Chiagozie Ekoh
Social Work PhD student Prince Ekoh relaxes on a ferry in Hong Kong. Ekoh was awarded Canada's highest graduate studies awards in 2023. Courtesy Prince Ekoh

April 25, 2024

There’s a reason Prince Chiagozie Ekoh sees human relationships above all

PhD student in UCalgary Faculty of Social Work brings game-changing approaches to his study of older forced migrants

By any measure it has been an amazing year for Prince Chiagozie Ekoh, a Faculty of Social Work doctoral student. To recap: He was recently announced as a 2023 Vanier Canada Scholar. The Vanier, which provides $50,000 annually for three years, is one of Canada’s highest awards and is “the most prestigious and competitive of the doctoral scholarships offered by the Federal Government.” 

Last year he was also recognized as a 2023-2026 Trudeau Scholar, which has a value of up to $40,000 per year and “is regarded as the most prestigious doctoral award for the social sciences and humanities in Canada — supporting doctoral students who are committed to solving issues of critical importance to Canada and the world.”

As if that wasn’t enough, in September he received the UCalgary Faculty of Graduate Studies J.B. Hyne Research Innovation Award, recognizing the game-changing approaches he’s taking in his research. 

Recognition despite an inability to recognize

With all of this success, you’d forgive Ekoh if he was, at least, a little proud of his accomplishments, but he’s one of the most humble and self-effacing researchers you’ll ever meet. So, you should know that if you pass him in the hallway and he doesn’t recognize you, it’s not because he’s “gone Hollywood.” It’s because he has prosopagnosia, more commonly known as “face-blindness,” which means it’s hard for him to recognize people. He explains that his prosopagnosia is a big reason he has always focused on the things that connect us all, our social networks.

“From an early age,” he explains, ”I realized the importance of human relationships because the prosopagnosia makes me work extra hard. For the normal person, you remember your friends, you remember your family. But since I struggle with this, it draws my attention to the critical importance of human relationships in everything we are doing.”

In particular, Ekoh is focused on understanding and supporting older migrants, most of whom lose their social networks when forced to leave their home countries due to conflict, violence or other factors beyond their control. In Calgary, he has been working with older adults from Nigeria who find themselves suddenly isolated.

Falling in love with gerontology

Some people seem to be naturally “old souls,” seemingly born in a cardigan with an innate appreciation for tea and Matlock. Prince Chiagozie Ekoh is not one of those people. Ekoh radiates positive energy, probably doesn't own a cardigan or Tilley hat, and frosts the tips of his hair. In short, he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would spend most of his time hanging with seniors. 

To be fair, he wasn’t overly keen on working with seniors when it was first suggested to him during his bachelor of social work by his professor, Dr. Uzoma Okoye, PhD – Nigeria’s first professor of social work. Okoye, who has maintained her connection with Ekoh and is a member of his PhD committee, has a strong gerontology research interest and clearly saw something in Ekoh that he didn’t yet see in himself. 

“At first I wasn't very interested in aging research,” he admits, “because I felt that I was too young to understand older people. But when I did this research and interacted with a lot of older adults in Nigeria, I fell in love with working with older adults. And that is how I started my practice and work with older adults.” 

Prince Ekoh receives the Faculty of Graduate Studies J.B. Hynes Award

Prince Ekoh receives the Faculty of Graduate Studies J.B. Hynes Award which recognizes research innovation. It was just one of four awards that Ekoh received last year.

Courtesy Prince Ekoh

Learning to live and breathe research at the University of Nigeria

When asked about his amazing graduate awards, Ekoh begins by giving credit to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He gives them full credit for laying the foundation for his academic success, pointing to their utter commitment to research. As he puts it, they are “crazy about research.” 

“They pushed us to work extra hard,” says Ekoh. “To do extra. To volunteer. To take up leadership positions. And they're crazy about research... They want to breathe research; they want to think research. They want everything they do to be research focused. So, we are pushed as early as possible to do as much research as possible.”

He began volunteering with older adults who became research partners for his undergraduate thesis. Over time he came to appreciate the wisdom of his older clients and saw the immediate and profound impact he made on their lives, which strengthened his resolve to help this vulnerable and often marginalized group. 

After graduation he worked in a hospital in Abuja and volunteered in a nearby Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, where he noticed that the lion’s share of resources went to mothers and their children and younger people, while the older migrants were often forgotten and isolated. 

He took his growing interest with him as he made the next stop on his academic journey, a master's degree in gerontology at England’s University of Southampton. Upon completion he returned to the University of Nigeria Nsukka, to continue his teaching career. He made the decision to pursue life as an academic, in large part because of his face-blindness, which made it hard to be a social worker. 

“Relationships are very crucial in social work practice,” Ekoh says, “and clients are not happy when they come for a visit, and you do not recognize them.” 

UCalgary, by default 

His plans to continue his PhD back at the University of Southampton were crushed by COVID. His funding was withdrawn, so looked for other options, and found three. Hong Kong, where a close friend said funding was very good, but that he likely wouldn’t enjoy the experience. He also rejected going to the United States, because as a young Black man, he said he was fearful for his safety. The final option was the University of Calgary, Faculty of Social Work, which he chose by default, but says he has no regrets. 

“I love this faculty. I think this faculty has given me so much. They support me as much as they can. So, I do love it here. The dean (Ellen Perrault) and supervisor (Christine Walsh) support me, each time I need something, I simply ask them. 

For her part, Dr. Walsh, PhD, says she’s usually happy to support Ekoh’s many demands because they often open the door to new possibilities. “It has been a pleasure working with Prince,” she says. “With his keen mind and his dedication to learning and contributing to the well-being of seniors in his research and volunteer activities. There is always an ‘ask’ which presents another opportunity for innovation and insight.”

Besides the support, Ekoh says he also appreciates the entire faculty’s focus on critical thinking — from his student colleagues to the many thought-leading faculty members.

“It’s not just about looking at things in black and white,” he says. “They also see the grey areas in so many issues. So, the faculty has been great to me.”

Prince Ekoh with classmate Serge Nyirinkwuma

Prince Ekoh, foreground, with classmate Serge Nyirinkwuma.

Dorothy Badry

A strength’s-based focus on the important contributions of older migrants 

Ekoh, has, of course, continued his research with older forced migrants in Calgary. While he’s found similarities with his previous work, he says there are also significant differences between forced migrants and displaced populations. The displaced people he worked with in Abuja, were, at least in the same country, closer to their former homes, and with the same culture, language, and food etc. For forced immigrants in a place like Canada, nearly everything is different.

“If a person becomes a refugee, especially in a western country, and find themselves in a place like Calgary that is super white, they suddenly recognize that they are Black,” says Ekoh, “They come to observe a new culture, a new language and it all intersects to give them a different experience than (internally) displaced people would have.” 

The other major difference between the two populations is, of course, the thousands of miles that separate refugees from their former homes. Distance that creates separation from friends and extended family — the social networks that are so vital to well-being. 

“Suddenly,” says Ekoh, “they are far from their home, which means they can no longer leave their houses and go talk to their family next door. So, it creates different challenges and that's why I do the research.” 

Research partners, not just participants.

In youth-obsessed cultures like North America, the wisdom, valuable contributions and lived experience of older adults are often dismissed or discounted. Ekoh is determined that his research won’t make that mistake. His strength’s-based research focuses on the value that older adults bring to their communities. For example, they often provide free childcare, allowing parents to work. In camp settings it is usually older adults who raise children orphaned by violence and conflict. Emotionally, through their example, and sharing their life stories, they teach the community resilience and help others to re-frame their perspective. 

In western countries, forced migrants also carry their home culture and language with them, in essence bringing cultural roots to populations who need it the most. As Ekoh explains, “Older forced migrants who come with their culture, and language, can help connect young people to their roots and help them develop into better adults with the cultural transfer.”

Ekoh underlines that since they have the lived experience, the seniors he’s working with are going to co-create the knowledge and identify the supports that would help older adults as well as the policies that need to change.

This knowledge comes at a cost, for both the seniors in the telling, and for Ekoh in the hearing. Many of the stories the seniors share are unspeakably tragic, and tell of complete and utter loss. Loss of their children, loss of their homes, loss of their way of life … loss of everything. Ekoh says hearing the stories creates secondary trauma that he works through with friends, mentors and faculty members. However, in the end it is often also inspirational and will hopefully one day lead to better outcomes for them, and for all of us, if we’re lucky enough to reach that age. 

“I am fortunate to work with them,” he reflects, “and even though it comes with secondary trauma, I do appreciate the privilege that I have to keep interacting with them and keep working with them.” 

Research looks to capture senior’s experience in an animated short film

The multiple award-winning scholar, is actually in Hong Kong right now, after winning yet another competitive internship at Hong Kong Polytechnic where he’s been studying under UCalgary Social Work alumna, Dr. Crystal Kwan, PhD. Besides helping him avoid most of the Calgary winter (really the only thing he hates about the city) the experience has also broadened his academic horizons. 

When asked the absolute worst question to pose to a PhD student (i.e. “When will you be done?”) Ekoh just shrugs and laughs, saying he’s hopeful that he’ll finish in 2026. But that’s just an estimate. Besides recommendations for policy change and evidence-informed approaches to supporting older forced immigrants, he’s also planning to create an important educational piece. He’s working with the seniors to script a short, animated video that will collect their experiences into a single representative story. A story that he hopes will help others understand the unique needs of this often-forgotten population. And after that, who knows? 

“Afterwards I cannot say for sure what I'm going to do,” he says, “but I know that I want to remain in academia, doing research and teaching because I love doing that.” 

The University of Calgary is Canada's largest school of social work and internationally recognized for innovation, thought leadership and research productivity. Impactful research and collaboration is one of the faculty's strategic priorities, as outlined in our 2022-27 plan, A Place To Gather

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